Alabama Picassoby Ben La Rocco
Recently, I saw Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a woman more beautiful than the paintings, which were very beautiful. We walked from one to the next and I could see her seeing the paintings, which was so much better than looking at them myself. Life does not imitate art. As life happens around you it doesn’t look or smell or taste like art. It looks like life. Life is about being alive and survival and it couldn’t care less about art and who could blame it? A person can imitate art, which you could argue is a form of life imitating art. But if you adjust the way you see life according to what you’ve learned from art and act accordingly, is that imitating art? Impoverished idea! It’s about living more fully, being full of life. From that perspective, life can’t imitate art, because art is constantly subsumed in life. Life might briefly, spasmodically look like art, but it is just a tick, an occasional spasm. Even though I like painting more than any other one thing on earth, I am not going to pretend that life could or would mimic it. Painting is a part of life anyway.
Anton Haardt’s gallery is on a quiet street in Montgomery, Alabama. On the phone, Anton said that she hardly opens it for anyone anymore and does most of her selling online. She asked me a lot of questions about where I was from and what I was doing in Alabama—so many that I started to think she didn’t want me to come over or that it might not be worth it to go. She told me that painters used to come down from New York to meet the local artists, but that that didn’t happen anymore. So I guess it seemed strange that I was there. But she gave me directions and we drove over.
When Patrick and I got there, Anton said she didn’t usually answer the phone. She led us into a hallway with lots of paintings of watermelons on old scraps of wood by Mose Tolliver. In the gallery, there were paintings everywhere, packed and unpacked, tucked away on shelves and racks and stacked on the floor. The ceilings were high and the walls were yellow and things looked like they’d found their place on them over the course of many years. Patrick was calm and Anton seemed charmed. I got nervous because I liked all the art so much and I was thinking about buying things I couldn’t afford. I started sweating and knocking things over. I accidentally pushed over a Tolliver that was sitting on the floor and it fell on its face. Then my shirt caught the edge of a cardboard box on which another small painting was sitting and that one flew off the box onto the floor. I cried out in horror, which was more embarrassing than the accident itself. Anton didn’t seem to care. She kept moving around the space and talking as though these sorts of things happen all the time, which maybe they do.
There must have been at least another 40 Tollivers in the gallery. There were flower drawings by Sybil Gibson and weird dancing drawings by Thornton Dial. There were paintings by Mose’s daughter, Annie Tolliver, that looked kind of like Mose’s only a little more refined. There were Central American retablos paintings and handmade musical instruments. There were stacks of portraits by Jimmy Lee Sudduth, who put sugar in black mud and painted on wood. In the back was a whole room full of sculptures by Juanita Rogers made from mud and bone. I’m not sure sculpture is the right word for Rogers’s work. They look like space aliens that got run over and freeze dried and should have died but sit around lumpily on the floor instead.
We went over to Anton’s old Victorian home, which adjoined the gallery, and saw more drawings. There was a small colored pencil drawing by Dilmas Hall about a shoe that got caught in a hurricane and dragged halfway across the country and wound up on his front lawn. The walls were covered with art and there was sculpture on the bookshelves. High up on one of them was one by ‘Son’ Ford Thomas or James ‘Son’ Thomas or James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas (I can’t tell which one he’s called), who was a blues guitarist who worked in a graveyard and made sculptures that look like parts of dead people. This one was a hand.
‘Son’ Thomas was a part of the generation, now almost gone, that includes everyone I’ve mentioned so far except Annie Tolliver. These artists mostly didn’t start making art until they were into mid or late life or until they were injured so badly they couldn’t do anything else. Art was a way to survive despite hard times or an expression of a feeling about the world after having been around long enough to have seen part of it. That’s what the blues is about. Blues teaches repetition and variation on very simple rhythms. It’s not the newness of the song, but how you play it that matters. The songs are almost always old. Some blues players wreck the songs intentionally by playing or singing out of key. ‘Son’ House did that. This lessens the mind’s grip on the music and the emotion flows and is freed to enter the world through things instead of through language. I imagine that’s how ‘Son’ Thomas wound up making sculpture from looking at dead people. Maybe that’s why Mose Tolliver made paintings and hung them in trees in front of his house after his legs were crushed in an accident at work. Maybe Picasso felt the same thing and that’s why he spent so much time unlearning everything he’d learned, leaving behind the things he invented and destroying what he’d made.
Among Thomas’s contemporaries was B.F. Perkins, a preacher who began making paintings because God told him to. Van Gogh wanted to be a preacher before he wound up a painter. But what Perkins wanted was beside the point. When God tells you to make paintings, you make paintings. Maybe Van Gogh never had a choice either and his misery was not knowing that he never had a choice. But Perkins definitely had no choice. If Perkins’s paintings are a guide, God is patriotic and into psychedelics and a little O.C.D. But maybe the paintings are no guide. Maybe God didn’t tell him what to paint but just stuck a brush in his hand and turned him loose. But why have him paint when he could preach? Maybe God felt he wasn’t doing enough by talking or that he could do something with images that he could not do with words. Or maybe he’d just given up and God gave him something to do.
In literature on self-taught artists, I’ve seen Picasso referred to as an academic artist. Alabama artist Calvin Livingston called himself “the Pablo Picasso of Prattville.” Maybe you can’t categorize art. Maybe you just have to wait until you see it to know it. I’ve noticed that sometimes, even after you have seen it and known it, you can accidentally make it disappear by talking about it. It’s possible that talking about art at all is inappropriate. Maybe art’s just an attitude toward things that makes you see beauty everywhere, even at the cost of being unable to identify anything else. Ah the stupidity of aesthetic vision!
The most beautiful Picasso I ever saw was in a Blue Period show at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, I think. It was a long time ago. It was a vase of flowers painted in muted tones. It was big, a monumental vase. Picasso must have tried to efface the painting because it was cut deeply with a raking geometric pattern incised by holding the point of a knife to its surface and swinging his arm back and forth. He scratched and gouged it with the blade never leaving the canvas, which I was surprised had not been punctured. Maybe it had and a conservator put it back together. Picasso never wanted anyone to see that painting.
Picasso would paint on anything or turn any object into sculpture. In Alabama, the red dirt roads are cratered in the earth, their embankments reinforced by decades of regrading. Driving around, it’s common to see hollowed out gourds mounted on tall, thin, steel poles in front of houses. These are for the martins to rest as they pass through on their way to a nesting ground. Each pole supports a constellation of gourds, all painted white to reflect the sun and punctured with entry holes and small holes at the bottom for drainage. A little less common but visible in many homes, are gourds individually painted with colorful scenery. Anton had one by Mose Tolliver.
Tolliver was a house painter before his injury and when he started making paintings, he worked with house paint on scraps of wood, doors, shelves, cardboards or anything else lying around. There is a lot of similarity among the paintings of the self-taught Alabama artists in Tolliver’s generation. They often use bright colors to create patterns or depict simplified forms of people, animals, and plants. There are often words boldly etched in their paintings, and there is a celebratory, ecstatic quality to their use of humble materials. There is a pronounced willingness to work with whatever falls to hand. It’s never about the quality of materials; it’s about the inspiration of the moment.
ContributorBen La Rocco